Sunday, January 4, 2015

Snowpiercer Movie Review

Joon-ho Bong’s first English language film turns out to b e a bleak allegory about the future (or the present, perhaps) of the human race. Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel about a future dystopian Earth that has fallen into a worldwide catastrophe of ultra-cold temperatures and snow. A single train running on a perpetual motion engine makes its way on a round-the-world track taking one year to make the circuit. On board are earth’s only survivors, divided into the working class at the tail section and an aristocracy up front.

The allegorical implications are obvious and hardly worth exploring. It’s a story of the haves versus the have-nots. The people in the tail section survive on protein bars for sustenance. They have no access to any real food or nice clothing that the wealthy have. Revolution is brewing in the air, as it apparently has in the past but been suppressed, led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and his second, Edgar (Jamie Bell). Their mentor is the one-armed, one-legged Gilliam (John Hurt), who pushes Curtis to lead the revolution. Octavia Spencer and Ewan Bremner play two of the revolutionaries who breach the gates along with Curtis, motivated by the removing of their small boys to the front of the train for who knows what? Their first order of business after breaking through the squad of armed guards and three security gates is to release Nam (Kang-ho Song) from the prison section. As the designer of the train’s security system, Nam is literally their access to the front.

Representing the order and oligarchy is Mason, played by a frightfully unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, whose buck teeth and large thick glasses make her a monster. She espouses an unbreakable philosophy of fealty to the train’s engine and its designer, Wilford (played later by Ed Harris). She shows up to teach object lessons to people who refuse to submit. Seven minutes with an arm sticking out of the trin leaves it frozen solid and ripe for smashing.

The screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson, based on a French graphic novel, emphasizes themes like cycles (years and seasons are no longer noted by natural progression of the earth around the sun, but by the annual passing of certain landmarks); extinction (cigarettes, bullets, and chickens are all things believed at various points in the story to be extinct, suggesting mankind’ limited time in future history); and perpetuity or eternality (the new god is the “eternal” engine and its operator is humanity’s savior). Wilford and the engine are spoken of by the likes of Mason in terms of such deference and adoration that I thought for sure they would turn out to be mirages. Humanity has essentially been reorganized along familiar lines with new entities supplanting the old (cycles and perpetuity again). Wilford even tries to convince Curtis once he reaches the front to take over the operation. No one lives forever, after all. This is a story about maintaining survival of the species.

The technical challenges of making an action thriller set entirely inside a train must have been great. Bong is a master of camera manipulation. He has a brilliant sense of space and timing and location. His action directing is beautifully organized and choreographed through the whole film. I’m not sure his camera ever “crosses the line.” That is to say, in every shot the direction toward the rear of the train is always left of frame so we never forget where everyone came from and where they’re headed.

And this is an unusual action film in featuring some notable acting. Swinton of course is memorable and brilliant as always. John Hurt and Ed Harris are reliable, bringing empathy and gravity, respectively to their roles. Jaime Bell is youthful and eager, deftly representing a generation of young adults on board who have no memory of anything prior to the train. And Chris Evans, who has demonstrated some surprising actorly skill as Captain America, shows some genuine promise in Snowpiercer. There is a dark side here that makes me anticipate some interesting things in his future if he makes good choices.

It’s the ending I found most beguiling and there’s really no way to talk about it without talking about it so exit now if you don’t like spoilers. There’s an ambiguity that I think Bong wanted out of the ending, but I’m not sure there’s any way to read it as anything but certain doom for humanity. The train blows up and is knocked off the mountain by an avalanche presumably killing everyone on board except two kids: Nam’s seventeen-year old daughter (Ah-sung Ko) and a young boy who was helping to operate the engine. Common wisdom on board has always been that nothing can survive the freezing temperatures, but in the distance they see a polar bear, implying that life goes on (cycles of nature, which actually is eternal unlike the engine). These two kids are the last two human beings on earth. Is Bong implying that they are also a new Adam and Eve and that’s supposed to be an optimistic ending?

I guess it’s a kind of Rorschach test for the audience. One can be hopeful in the possibility of additional train survivors. But when you consider that these two we see, at least, have no survival skills for nature, having been born on the train, the future is bleak. That’s only a piece of what sets Snowpiercer apart from typical summer popcorn movies. It’s got something to say and it’s technically savvy and interesting. I remain pessimistic with regard to the film’s conclusion, but not for what the success of Snowpiercer says about film culture in general.

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